The Cubs Just Can’t Find a Leadoff Hitter

If you were to examine the relationship between the matters about which fans most complain and the relevance of those matters to actual wins and losses, you’d likely find that lineup construction produces the weakest correlation. Who starts and who sits matters a lot. Bullpen management can make a real difference on a club’s record. Generally, though, the precise location of a hitter in the batting order doesn’t amount to much.

Take the Cubs as an example. Chicago’s leadoff hitters batted .246/.324/.422 with a 94 wRC+ last year, which isn’t ideal production from one of the most important spots in the lineup. The team still managed to average more than five runs per game, though — and even if they completely optimized their lineup, it likely wouldn’t have netted the team much more than 10 extra runs over the entire course of the season.

Now, 10 runs isn’t nothing: over the course of the year, a close playoff race might turn on that margin. And while the Cubs might have left runs on the table, this actually probably isn’t a case where the manager — in this case, Joe Maddon — is actually to blame. Finding a leadoff hitter for the Cubs has proven to be a difficult proposition. Consider how the team performed last season by batting-order spot.

Kris Bryant mostly batted second, Anthony Rizzo mostly batted third, followed by a mix of cleanup hitters including Willson Contreras, Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, and a few others. Everywhere else, the Cubs were mostly average, especially if one regards the eighth and ninth spots as one given Maddon’s habit of sometimes batting the pitcher eighth.

Such a disparity between the leadoff spot and hitters two through four is actually pretty common. MLB teams recorded a collective 99 wRC+ out of the leadoff spot last year while producing a 112 wRC+ in the next three spots. If suboptimal, it’s also not unusual. A year ago, we were discussing a new type of leadoff hitter in the Kyle Schwarber mold, but it didn’t really hold. It especially didn’t hold for Schwarber, who started slowly.

Here are the players who received at least 30 plate appearances at the position last season and how they performed in that position:

Cubs Leadoff Hitters in 2017
Name Leadoff PA Leadoff OBP Leadoff SLG Leadoff wRC+ Overall wRC+
Jon Jay 239 .325 .350 77 101
Ben Zobrist 182 .330 .438 100 82
Kyle Schwarber 173 .312 .381 83 102
Anthony Rizzo 59 .373 .680 158 133
Ian Happ 39 .333 .606 134 113

It’s not really Joe Maddon’s fault that Kyle Schwarber got off to an awful start last season or that Jon Jay performed far worse than normal. Ian Happ wasn’t on the major-league roster for part of the year, and expecting him to produce right away would have been a mistake. Anthony Rizzo’s power profiles better with runners on base. The same is true for Kris Bryant. The Cubs’ next-best hitter after Bryant and Rizzo is Willson Contreras. His batting line might be conducive to hitting leadoff — and it is a discussion worth revisiting — but he’s generally a poor baserunner despite an above-average sprint speed.

Jason Heyward hasn’t gotten it together at the plate while a Cub, and Addison Russell has yet to blossom as a hitter. Javy Baez is just an average hitter with a below-average on-base percentage. Albert Almora Jr. is projected as a below-average bat. Finding an ideal candidate to hit leadoff for the Cubs has been difficult since the team allowed Dexter Fowler to depart via free agency after their championship season.

As for what an ideal leadoff hitters looks like, I still refer to this Sky Kalkman piece that is now nearly a decade old.

The old-school book says to put a speedy guy up top. Power isn’t important, and OBP is nice, but comes second to speed.

The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they’re not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without homerun power. Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him.

In the early going of the 2018 campaign, Joe Maddon has opted to use Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ in a platoon at the top of the lineup, with the switch-hitting Happ batting from the left side against righties and Almora Jr. batting from the right side against lefties. While Happ’s spring provided some optimism that he would break out after a solid debut, he’s striking out a ridiculous rate. While that trend isn’t likely to continue, neither Almora Jr. nor Happ — even with the platoon advantage — project to get on base a ton or profile as one of the Cubs’ four or five best hitters. That makes them poor candidates to lead off.

Here are the Cubs’ current projections for hitters the rest of the season. It is easy to see why finding a leadoff hitter is hard.

Cubs Hitter Projections in 2018
Kris Bryant 595 .281 .392 .528 .388
Anthony Rizzo 588 .272 .386 .520 .382
Kyle Schwarber 475 .234 .333 .486 .346
Willson Contreras 495 .270 .346 .453 .341
Ben Zobrist 498 .260 .352 .407 .329
Ian Happ 531 .245 .316 .458 .327
Jason Heyward 512 .262 .339 .401 .321
Addison Russell 544 .245 .321 .422 .316
Javier Baez 553 .254 .308 .456 .315
Albert Almora Jr. 192 .270 .309 .413 .308

In terms of completely optimizing the lineup, Maddon deserves praise for hitting Kris Bryant second. On the other hand, there might be some advantage to batting Anthony Rizzo fourth, not third, while there’s also an argument to hit Rizzo and Bryant first and second (although that seems less realistic). As for who should bat leadoff, the best options appear to be Contreras, Schwarber, and potentially Ben Zobrist. Happ doesn’t get on base enough, and the rest of the players listed here aren’t strong enough hitters to deserve that placement.

The Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment failed last year not because Schwarber wasn’t a good candidate for the spot, but because he didn’t hit enough. If Ben Zobrist continues his rebound from last season, he might be a consideration for the spot — particularly against lefties — but the two best candidates for the job are the most unorthodox by body type. Neither Contreras nor Schwarber are burners, but they should get on base and hit well, which is the most important thing a batter could do. Putting Contreras in a leadoff role also might help him avoid hitting into double plays, which was an issue last season and unlikely to stop given his ground-ball tendencies.

The Cubs might not have found a replacement for Dexter Fowler, but unless they believe Ian Happ is one of the best hitters on the team, he shouldn’t be occupying the top spot in the lineup. If the team still believes in Happ, it is fair to leave him there, but the projections and his big-league performance from last year and this year indicate he might not be the best fit.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

I’m of the mind that good leadoff hitters–the kinds of guys with high OBPs and good baserunning skills but without enough power for the #2 slot–are pretty hard to find. This is at least partly because guys who fit that definition often are so good they are best suited for the #2 slot instead (Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, the old Andrew McCutchen, etc). So if you’re optimizing your lineup based on The Book you want to have a tablesetter and a guy who can drive him in.

Here is the list of players who had a season between 2013 and 2017 who had a single season where they had (a) an OBP over .375, (b) a baserunning score of 3 or more, and (c) an .ISO under .200 (above that, they’re a strong candidate for the #2 slot).
-Paul Goldschmidt (2016)
-Andrew McCutchen (2013)
-Jayson Werth (2014)
-Dexter Fowler (2014, 2016)
-Matt Carpenter (2013)
-Michael Brantley (2014)
-Jose Altuve (2014)
-Corey Seager (2017)

And here is a list of players who had a season between 2013 and 2017 who aren’t on the first list, but had a single season where they had (a) an OBP over .375, (b) a baserunning score of 1.5 but less than 3.5, and (c) an .ISO under .200 (above that, they’re a strong candidate for the #2 slot).
-Shin-Soo Choo (2013, 2015)
-Freddie Freeman (2013)
-Ben Zobrist (2016)
-Eric Hosmer (2017)
-Yasiel Puig (2014)
-Avisail Garcia (2017)
-Michael Brantley (2015…he’s on above list but for different criteria)
-Christian Yelich (2016)

Even when we specifically design criteria to exclude our prototypical #2 hitter, we still wind up with a bunch of them on the list (Goldschmidt, McCutchen, prime Puig, Seager). There really aren’t any “ideal” leadoff hitters anymore, except what Fowler, Choo, and Brantley were doing a few years ago.

It’s totally fair to just stick Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot and figure whatever he gives back in baserunning he makes up for with an even higher OBP, but I wonder about the point at which you should be sticking a guy with a ton of power in the #1 slot and just letting him rip. If your options are a bunch of guys with OBPs around .315 and you have a lineup with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, what is the break-even point where you just move everyone up a slot and stick your next-best option as the 9th batter?

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

A Carlos Santana type as a leadoff hitter is interesting. According to Dusty Baker all those walks would just clog the bases though, not a good problem to have for the old-school guys!

5 years ago
Reply to  dustin0224

To be fair, I don’t think base running skills and speed are entirely negligible though so I think that should play into it at least somewhat

5 years ago

Yeah, and Carlos Santana wasn’t a good example because as I realized several hours after my post, Santana is actually a decent (if not blazing) baserunner. So he’s not a big negative on the basepaths or anything.

Joey Votto, on the other hand, who has a career (that’s right, a career) OBP of .427 but who hasn’t had a positive baserunning year since 2010…he would be the ultimate test case for putting a guy with a crazy OBP up top and figuring that the baserunning isn’t that important.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Brett Gardner doesn’t meat your .375 OBP qualification but he’s consistently around .350 (and for what it’s worth, near .400 this year). If you can live with that, he might be the best choice in baseball aside from Fowler for a “typical” leadoff hitter. Brantley, DJ LeMahieu, and Adam Eaton look like similarly strong choices.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Just can’t stay away from this. Players with a season above .360 but below .375, baserunning above 1.5, and ISO under .200 from 2013-2017.

Bryce Harper (2016)
Jason Kipnis (2013, 2015)
Jonathan Villar (2017)
Christian Yelich (2014, 2017, 2015)
Jean Segura (2016)
AJ Pollock (2015)
Curtis Granderson (2015)
Eric Hosmer (2015)
Jose Ramirez (2016)
Lorenzo Cain (2015, 2017)
Josh Reddick (2017)
Adam Eaton (2014, 2015, 2016)
Starling Marte (2016)
Elvis Andrus (2016)
Odubel Herrera (2016)
Carlos Correa (2016)

So if you’re willing to drop the OBP down to a single season above .360, you have some more options. You have 40 seasons total between the list above and the one here, and if you exclude mashers like Harper, Correa, Goldschmidt, and McCutchen (who we like as #2’s according to The Book) you only have 33. which means that over five years 7 teams (more or less, if they don’t cluster on a single team or within years) should have a “real” leadoff hitter.

So these guys are still pretty rare! The only way you really up this number is if you punt on having clearly-above-average baserunning value (in which case guys like Cesar Hernandez are in play) or are willing to bump a big bopper to the #1 spot.